James writes: Here’s another of those interviews I did during a random burst of energy in 1975. This one took place a couple of weeks before my previously-posted talk with Dick Lane, and my memory is that this one is probably a bit better because of the range of topics it covers.
JAMES CURTIS:Getting back to Harry Langdon, what was the reason Langdon came to Columbia?
JULES WHITE:It’s a very strange story. Harry Langdon had become a big star. So big that he was so imbued with his own importance that he became a very difficult man to live with. Frank Capra, who had made Harry Langdon, wouldn’t even talk to him. He got the reputation of being a louse—temperamental, discontented, argumentative, hard to live with. Can’t do this. So, nobody wanted him. His popularity had waned. I don’t know how his last few pictures were financially; I guess they were not too good. Because you know that the public is fickle. They’ll find a new sweetheart every day, and the old sweetheart can go fly a kite. So it was with Langdon. So it was with Charley Chase—although Chase wasn’t temperamental. He just had hit a spot in his life where his films were not in demand.
I had a writer. He was a man who originally got Langdon and Capra together. His name was Arthur Ripley. Arthur Ripley was a brilliant, brilliant man.
Charley Chase: Dead at 47, 1940
JC:He directed for Sennett for a while also.
JW:Yes. He was really in change of their editing, and this is where he started. Arthur Ripley wound up teaching motion picture writing, directing, etcetera, at University of California–UCLA. Now, as I say, Ripley was way ahead of everybody. He could go to the very lowest slapstick and spout Shakespeare and try to incorporate the two. And sometimes he did it almost with success. He came to me one day and said, “Would you want Harry Langdon? Would you like to make a series of two-reelers with Harry Langdon?” I said, “Hell, yes.”
I believe that talent lives with a man until he dies. The man displayed the fact that he had talent. What had happened with it, I don’t know. Why he didn’t continue to be successful, I didn’t know. But it didn’t bother me; I was willing to try. So Langdon was flat broke, but I mean flatbroke. Ripley arranged with somebody, who was a member of Lakeside Country Club, to let us meet there. He said, “Do me a favor. The guy’s very self-conscious. He’ll think he’s making an impression if you go meet him out at the club.” So I did and we talked. And we made a deal. And that’s how he got back into pictures.
JC:Did you like him? Did you get along with him? Was he difficult?
JW:No, he was great. He was a subdued little guy. I think he was so subdued that he was sort of inhibited and wasn’t as funny as he had been in his earlier days. Also, the technique in two-reelers was different. I couldn’t let him stand and make faces. Things had to happen. We made some very good pictures with him, but they were not as successful as they should have been, although they were okay. I don’t know how many I made with him. I know I put Shemp in with him a couple of times.
JC:In later years at Columbia—I guess he lost his box office appeal—he was co-starred with El Brendel. In fact, I think he took second billing to El Brendel.
JW: No, he was featured at all times in our shorts, but he may have been co-featured with someone else like El Brendel. I put Shemp in there with him. I don’t know; I surrounded him with good people.
JC:Was he having trouble, creatively speaking, at that time?
JW: Well, I found that it was difficult to just keep it going the way I wanted to with just him alone. But this was true with others, too. Joe Besser—I had to put some people with him. This was a way we had of working. It didn’t necessarily mean he was no good. It just meant that he needed help. Like I needed help. I couldn’t do all the pictures by myself; I had to have writers and directors.
JC:When Langdon left Columbia, it was just a year before he died. What was the reason he left Columbia?
JW:The films didn’t sell. We got to the point where it wasn’t financially worthwhile.
JC:About 1937, Charley Chase came over from Hal Roach.
JW:No, Charley Chase had been out of work for a long time.
JC:Oh, had he?
JC:There’s a story that Charley Chase made a picture at Roach that was six reels in length called “Neighborhood House.” And that it was so poor that Roach cut it down to a two-reeler and fired him. Is there any truth to that?
JW:This I can’t tell you. What the reason was that he was no longer with Roach I don’t know. His popularity waned, too. And then Roach was only interested in making feature-length films for a certain period. I think that this automatically let out some of the others. Charley Chase had not been working for quite a while to my knowledge. Unless I’m mixed up. If someone said to me, “You’re wrong” and told me what actually transpired, I wouldn’t argue about it. But as I remember, I know Charley hadn’t worked for quite some time.
JC:What kind of a man was Charley Chase?
JW:He was a nice guy. Of course, I knew him. He directed for my brother at Educational. He directed this Lloyd Hamilton in some of his pictures way back in the early twenties. He had a brother called Jimmy Parrott. Jimmy directed for me. But Charley was a nice enough guy. One thing about him: One take is all Charley needed. Charley would read the script—he was a good writer, he was a good director, he had a good conception. He’d say, “Let me show you what I want to do.” And he’d go in and he’d show you the whole scene, and it was worked out beautifully. So we’d say, “Let’s shoot.” One take and it was done. And that was very unusual.
JC:There seems to be a small but religiously-devoted cult of Charley Chase developing now… Was there ever any thought of doing something more with Charley Chase in terms of feature production?
JW:Not to my knowledge. You see, it was too big a load for me to carry all these shorts and keep making them. I wanted to direct, and I kept going into directing more. I had an assistant by the name of Hugh McCollum. And so we split the department and let McCollum make half and hire the directors, and I made my half and directed them all myself.
JC:Whose comedies did McCollum take?
JW:Everything. We just cut it right down the middle.
JC:So you would both supervise the series? Would he get some series and just work on those?
JW:No, no. We just cut the program in half and we each took half. This way I could direct everybody and make some of each. Which is what I wanted to do. Then, of course, we got to the point where we cut down the number of films we were making and it was no more feasible to have two producing units. Well, McCollum was out and I continued to make them.
JC:You directed one film with Charley Chase, “The Nightshirt Bandit,” in late 1938. How did you work with Charley Chase? Was it a more collaborative process than with some of the other comedians?
JW: He was the comedian. I was the producer and the director, or the producer and someone else directed it for me. But I was in charge, and I always, alwaysinvariably chose the stories, chose the cast, chose the directors, or did the directing myself—from the script that Charley, of course, could contribute to quite a lot. Charley would come in on the story conferences after we had a first draft script. I always did this with all of my comedians; I wanted their thinking. And I wanted anything they could contribute. And a lot of them contributed quite a bit. Charley and the Stooges excelled in this. More so than a fellow like Andy Clyde or Hugh Herbert. Hugh Herbert would read the script and that was it. And half the time I don’t think he even read it, because he’d get on the set and say, “Well, what do we do?” That’s a fact. Charley was very prolific.
JC:What happened to Charley Chase?
JW:He died in New York.
JC:He had a drinking problem? He was working for you right up until the time that he died.
JW:Well, he went to New York on a vacation, and he died there. Just like Harry Cohn went there on his own vacation and died.
JC:Was he a reserved man? A shy man?
JW:No, he was a very normal man. He was an outgoing fellow, very easy to know. And as I say, I knew him for twenty years before he came to Columbia. Charley was a nice guy, and he certainly had a background and lots of experience. He was a married man, had a happy home. One daughter, I believe. He was a pipe collector. Charley should have been a wealthy man; I have no idea what his estate was when he died. I understand he died of a heart attack.
JC:Very young, too.
JW:He was quite young; I think he was in his sixties or close to it.
JC:I think he was in his early forties.
JW:Oh, no. I think he was more than that, though it’s possible that I’m wrong. There’s a lot of years and a lot of people, and I could get mixed up.
JC:Well, I’ve seen later stills of him and he does look older than he’s supposed to be.
JW:Well, this [still] was one of the later ones. This was probably a year before he started to direct.
JC:Did he come to you and say, “I want to direct,” or did you ask him to direct?
JW:No, he went with McCollum to direct. He and McCollum sort of got together. It was all right with me; I didn’t care. And though I could have thrown a monkey wrench into the machinery anytime I wanted to, I never did because they did make good films. Some of them were outstanding.
JC:At that time, just to get an idea of what money went where, would someone like Charley Chase be on a contract where his services were required for a number of weeks per year?
JW:That’s correct. All of them were.
JC:How much would a contract like that run for someone like Charley Chase on an annual basis?
JW:You mean in money?
JW:How much did he get? Or how much did the pictures cost?
JC:You said around $20,000 apiece.
JW: Well, with him you could make them a little cheaper. Usually we’d make them in less hours with him than anyone else, because, as I told you, he’d read a script, get a conception of what he was going to do, he’d come in and discuss it, always his ideas were good. Very rarely did I find any controversy. He was a real asset, and you could shoot less hours with him and make a picture for less money, consequently. I don’t remember what his salary was and I don’t remember what any of them were, and I want to conveniently forget them because I don’t think it’s of importance to anybody as to what they got and how much the films cost. All I can tell you is that today, if those comedies cost $20,000 when we made them, they’d cost $75,000 or $80,000, at least, if we did the same things. Because today everything is specialized, and it’s got so that if you have one man on screen you’ve got 25 people standing around because the electrician wasn’t allowed to drive a nail and a carpenter wasn’t allowed to plug in a lamp.